The following piece is published as part of our TLM Young Writers series, a dedicated section of The London Magazine‘s website which showcases the work of exceptional young talent aged between 13-21, from the UK and beyond.
The (almost) future.
You start your day as normal. The blue light from your phone stings your eyes before the sun has had its chance.
‘Thirteen dead and twenty more injured— Are you paying enough to keep your family safe?’
It’s that advert again. You suspect it waits for you.
‘You can’t put a price on your loved ones’ security,’ it screams, ‘but with our easy monthly, interest-free payment plan we’ll—’
You skip it as soon as you’re allowed and go back to your timeline. Your thumb begins to cramp. You claw your way back to the story you were reading. How many bodies did the headline say? Are you paying enough to keep your family safe?
Your thumb slips, clicks another advert.
‘Join the revolution,’
You keep reading.
‘Here at ShoeGazers, we’re reinventing what it is you like about your shoes. Our new business-flex range combines the smartness of a brogue with the sporty sole and breathable—’
You close the app, flick through the open pages of your phone until you find the television, rolling over so your partner won’t hear. You click on your favourite show, wait for the advert to pass, and begin to watch with the sound on low. The characters are halfway through a joke—
‘Breaking News,’ there’s footage of people running. Flames eat a building from the inside out. ‘The death toll is climbing as guerilla forces— Ever wanted your belt to be more like your smartphone? Here at—’
You give up on staying informed for now.
. . .
You’ve heaved yourself to the kitchen. The fridge is pleased to meet you. Its screen tells you — aside from the time, weather, and current value of the dollar — the latest model of itself is available from all good retailers.
‘—with carbon fibre cooling pipes designed by NASA engineers—’
You choose to skip the sales pitch and the fridge begrudgingly unlocks itself. You root around for the orange juice, knocking aside the cola™, the yogurt™, the butter™. The milk™ is in the corner slowly developing life. Life that might build, destroy, then reach a healthy balance where they have to pass the time persuading each other to buy things they don’t really need. How much will they pay to keep their families safe?
The orange juice is at the back on its side where you left it. Pulpy, off-brand, and seventy percent sugar. The way nature intended. It splatters into your glass making an island out of the logo embossed on the base. You remember the unfolding story from earlier and hope to catch it on the television.
‘—keep you updated as the action happens.’
The news reporter looks through the screen at you with his head ducking between his shoulder blades. Bits of tarmac are growing from the trees behind him, seeding the ground with ash. Must be somewhere in the east. It’s crazy over there.
The news will be on adverts for the next ten minutes. You take out your phone, but the timeline has lost its flavour; everyone talks in frantic, half-written haikus, becoming more cryptic each time you refresh.
Your thumb must have slipped again because another advert is playing. Turns out your coffee cup needs Bluetooth.
You leave your phone running, the television alternating between competing supermarkets, and the fridge lurking in the corner. As you wait for the noise to end you read the carton of orange liquid. The name is utilitarian. A striped straw sticks out of a ripened orange. Sticky beads of juice bleed from the wound. The treacherous fruit..
Ce n’est pas du jus d’orange.
Underneath is the ‘nutritional’ information and a loving story about where each and every orange comes from: hand plucked from trees in Spain, only the finest quality juice; pumped with vitamins for a taste that is all natural.
The artificial orange resting against a blade of grass reminds you of a dusty memory where you rambled across fields until you found a corner that was silent. The sun would set like the sweetest orange of them all, leaving you in darkness, completely alone. The memory is now boxed in by billboards reminding you that there’s a more convenient way to pay for your car insurance.
You’re relieved of the memory by the sound of your partner plodding their way to the bathroom. The television has returned to its normal programming, but the news is no longer breaking, sitting quietly instead behind the Pepsico Mars landings and the government’s newest economic plan and a cartoon lizard telling you about the new flavour of—
‘Morning,’ says your partner as they kiss the back of your head. ‘Would you like some breakfast?’
You say yes. You’re not a robot yet. Your partner is already at the fridge, staring at the display.
‘— designed by NASA engineers for efficiency and longevity.’
‘Baby,’ they say, ‘Do you think we need a new fridge? We’ve had this one for nearly a year.’
Wasn’t that one designed for efficiency and longevity? Maybe it is time for a new one.
Your partner turns to you and says: ‘What do you want for breakfast, or ?’
You look between each box. The same size. The same shape. The same ingredients. Each with their own concoction of sweeteners masking the dull wheaty taste. The anthropomorphic mascots on the box each have the same frozen smile and soulless eyes attractive to children and adult-sized children. You saw on an infographic that the brands themselves are owned by the same parent corporation, one of the big oil companies. These thoughts of cereal branding and fibre content and the latest oil spill race through your brain as your dissociative stare meanders between the boxes, and you realise you’ve been screaming this all at your partner for the last minute.
‘Bloody hell ,’ they say, ‘I was just asking.’ They sit down at the table. ‘Anyway, I prefer . The taste is just unrivalled while providing a healthy blend of nutrition and energy to help me get through the day. It’s one of the leading brands of breakfast cereal four years in a row for a reason.’
Behind them is a wall of bodies lit by intermittent muzzle flashes.
. . .
You’re not sure when you decided to jump out of the window. You only remember the conversation about the off-brand toilet paper you bought. How it was chafing your partner, that there was a brand they prefer but you just can’t bring yourself to buy it, and for some reason, that was the final straw.
You’re somewhere in town. It’s midday and the billboards haven’t yet outshone the light of the sun. Wherever you look, you see them. The eye-grabbing windows, the sides of busses. Scrolling past the corner of your eye. A child in a pram plays with their toy, and you wonder what that toy might whisper when the parents are out of earshot.
The buildings are all original Georgian. Red bricks and white trimmings at the top, clad with adverts on the glass fronted lower stories. ‘50% off*’, ‘Buy One, Buy Another Free’, ‘Give Us Your Money!’ Roofs are now little more than billboard foundations. The narrowing horizon is telling you to ‘Step into the Golden Age of mortuary services.’
Between the flashing distractions all competing for a space in your brain, you can see the windows where people still live. Poking through the cracks, surviving in the one place where you can’t see a billboard. When they’re done watching television, those people will change the world.
Join the revolution.
When you stand in the middle of it all, it feels like that first scroll of the morning; when the ignorant fetus takes its first blinking steps into the light, before the sun has even come up. The world is constantly flashing, beeping, and screaming. Pay attention, the new series of the hit show you’ve never watched is coming soon. For the future of automated sofa technology. You have to pay attention now. They’re fusing the oil industry with the gig economy. You must know that you’re not paying enough for your car insurance, and your pet is unhappy with your choice of carpet, and this influencer is promoting diet shakes, now hate crimes, now they’re a politician.
The world is speeding up and the future gets further away. Another step down the long ladder into oblivion. You hope for it to end in a bang, not a promotional offer.
You feel your skull start to shrink around your brain, and the sweat is channeled down behind your ears. Everyone hurtles around you, running from something. Your eyes are ringing and the world turns into a single streak of neon light. Though the world is just noise and your knees have given up, there is something you’re missing out on. Pay attention . . .
. . .
. . .
‘Fourteen still missing,’
. . .
‘The McRib is back,’
. . .
‘You deserve a break,’
. . .
‘Another forty hospitalised,’
. . .
‘How much are you paying for your life insurance,’
. . .
‘The government has said we must remain vigilant,’
. . .
‘Deliveries straight to your door, so you can stay comfy at home’
. . .
‘Join the revolution,’
. . .
You start your day as normal. By reading something horrible before the part of you that can feel empathy wakes up. You wince into the blue light and for the first few moments of the day forget about the thumping ache in the side of your head.
Last night’s dream was strange. You were on a beach, infinite in length, and on every grain of sand, no matter how small, was engraved: ‘Brought to you by ’. You went mad trying to find one that is just a grain of sand. There’s a golfball growing out of your temple and a spot of blood on the pillow.
You ask your bedside AL Home Assistant unit to open up the curtains, and he complies despite your command being interrupted. You let the sick splatter into the glass making a small island out of the embossed logo. You can smell the tea brewing itself downstairs.
Getting dressed, you hold in your hand your Belt-onomics belt. When did you buy this? Who’s to say, but you’re glad to have it. It’s new. And better than ever.
You open the door to your kitchen. The fridge is new. The whole place is sparkling thanks to the consumer friendly range of home improvements offered by Palace Interiors. The television screens show blurry footage of some foreign conflict, but switches over to a lizard selling vitamin supplements. That lizard could be Prime Minister one day.
Your partner comes into the kitchen.
‘Morning love,’ they sing. ‘Juice?’
‘Yes,’ you say, ‘why not.’
They pour you a glass. It’s a different brand, you can tell by the taste. Sweeter with a fresh tang that makes you really believe you’re sitting under an orange tree on the Costa Del Sol. You’d like to find that spot you remembered. Drink under the tree there.
‘Let’s have that rubbish off,’ says your partner, switching off the screen. ‘How about the radio instead?’
‘Sure. Why not.’
The radio is on one of the news channels. Something important is happening, but it just sounds like static. You focus on the juice in your cup, and decide to take the day off.
. . .
You’ve been driving for several hours. The edges of the city are deserted. You drive down a narrowing road, lined first with offices, then houses, and a final stretch of billboards before the trees and the fields start to show through.
You arrive. It’s dustier than you remember. The road to the side of it has grown closer, and the fences are in different positions, but this is definitely the place. The tree is in the same place, decades older, but showing it well. The field around it is struggling to maintain its scrubby tufts of foliage, much like yourself. This might be the only unexploited field left in the world.
The sun dies away behind the horizon, just like the bloated orange you remembered.
Reaching into your bag, you take out the empty carton of orange juice, the off-brand one you liked. You compare the two oranges. One of them will explode one day in the most glorious cosmic event, and finally take away the non-perishable remains of the other. You decide to bury it, for the future.
The dirt comes away in dry lumps. Only once the light has gone do your actions start to worry you. A siren goes by in the distance. You haven’t checked your phone in hours. You dig faster and faster, your vague motivation growing. Your fingernails scrape away until they scrape something hard.
You reach for your phone. The screen explodes in the darkness. A swarm of notifications. Those sirens in the background could be for you. There’s hundreds of them now, all synchronising into a single ululating wail. You use the hollow light of your phone to look at what you found underneath the earth.
THIS FIELD WAS BROUGHT TO YOU BY UNITED DIRT TECHNOLOGIES
A PEPSICO COMPANY
You’re sitting alone in a field at night. As if imitating the eventual detonation of the sun, the city erupts into fire behind you.
Charlie Hinkley is a 19 year old, second year Creative Writing student at the University of Salford, Manchester.
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